ISU Community Garden, A Community Above

A nearby railroad track occasionally roars with the sound of trains transporting goods from one place to another. The Pioneer Oil Co. rig, which is, ironically, not even a block away quietly hums. Customers frequent the liquor store to the east. In the center this commercial commotion labor the gardeners of the ISU Community Garden, digging deeply and making a mark in the stony, black earth as passersby barely notice a change in the scenery. In this garden area, a team of about 90 voluntary laborers are working their own plots and enjoying each other’s company, sharing ideas and enjoying the warm sunshine.

Patricia Weaver, director of the ISU Community Garden since 2009 when the garden grew too large to be self-managed, has been a Master Gardener since 1995. One of Weaver’s first acts as director was to set up a system of defined guidelines to, in her words, “counterbalance a fee.” It was an effort to break down the financial barriers that inhibit the creation of a community. A system of required chores in the place of a fee practically eliminates any sort of economic discrimination and brings together, through work, those who are on different economic scales.

Has the plan worked? Discovering the true demographics of the garden cannot be ascertained simply by pulling up a spreadsheet of all of the gardeners. When they fill out the application to be granted a plot, they do not list their race, economic situation, or nationality. However, according to Weaver, there are people of 6 different nationalities and people from all walks of life working together in the garden. Weaver describes mothers who bring their children to help, university students, retirees and middle-aged bankers all working in their own individual plots. Ashley Rose Newton, a master’s seeking student at ISU, is currently researching this community garden phenomenon. Her preliminary findings have shown that building a community through gardening has helped to break down socio-economic barriers that exist in a wider community. Newton gives as an example that you could be working near a wealthy investment banker and not even know it because everyone has the same amount of land and shares the same tools.

So let’s talk numbers. There are currently 155 plots and nearly 90 gardeners. Both of those numbers are up considerably from the year before. According to the 2014 Guidelines of the garden 10% of each gardener’s produce is to be donated to a charity of the gardener’s choice. Local businesses like The Apple House give discounts to community gardeners as a contribution and a sort of marketing campaign. ISU is also a partner in the garden’s success. In addition to the shed full of tools that the ISU Maintenance Department provides, they also built a large concrete structure for composting and storing wood chips. A wood chipper with which the gardeners are able to make their own materials for pathways and mulch was also provided by ISU.

Currently a passive greenhouse is being built to serve as an educational resource for ISU and local high school and middle school students. The goal, as outlined on the ISU Unbounded Possibilities website, is to teach Green Construction, Science Education, and Nutrition to all those involved. In addition, this greenhouse, along with two others located on South High School’s campus and Otter Creek Middle School’s campus, will contribute fresh produce to the schools’ cafeterias.

Along with these local school and corporation partnerships the garden is connected through Unbounded Possibilities to the recycling program. Weaver stated that “they [the ISU Recycling Center] will be moving some of the recycling stuff over here…. They have some sort of a gasification process that decomposes things like paper into compost.” This would be a great benefit to the Community Garden because it will provide decomposed pellets of biodegradables to the garden as a substitute for mulch.

So the ISU Community Garden is not just a project to grow herbs and veggies, it is a project to build a strong and diverse community within the larger community of Terre Haute. It is the first chapter in the book of sustainability that has finally made its way into our city with the mission to waste less and save more. The Community Garden is a place where people can freely interact, share ideas and move the agenda of sustainability and green living forward. The poignant irony of the nearby oil rig is a constant reminder of what is at stake in the project.

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